Nonprofits and Governors Clash Over Syrian Refugees
by Foster, on News
The debate over Syrian refugees in the U.S. is stoking an unusual struggle between nonprofit groups helping people from broken lands and governors in about two dozen states who object to their arrivals.
Once the Department of Homeland Security clears refugees after reviews by multiple agencies, the heavy lifting falls to nine resettlement agencies, all nonprofits, and their hundreds of local offices and affiliates. The agencies, many with religious affiliations, perform a range of tasks, from meeting Syrian refugees at airports to helping them find jobs and apartments. They also aid families in navigating states’ public-assistance systems and enrolling children in schools.
But lately, these groups have found themselves at odds with many governors, almost all Republicans, who are voicing concerns about Syrian refugees or actively trying to halt their settlement, citing possible security risks in the wake of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris. Perpetrators included Europeans radicalized after travel to Syria, and French officials said one attacker posed as a Syrian refugee in order to enter Europe.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, shortly after the attack, announced an executive order barring state agencies from any involvement in accepting Syrian refugees.
“Until the federal government and Congress conducts a thorough review of current screening procedures and background checks, we will take every measure available to us at the state level to ensure the safety of Georgians,” he said at the time.
That didn’t stop World Relief, an agency based in Baltimore, from placing a Syrian family in Atlanta. Joshua Sieweke, who heads World Relief’s Atlanta office, said Thursday the Syrian family is still waiting to hear if the state will grant basic benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Mr. Deal is waiting for an opinion from the state attorney general, his spokeswoman said.
The International Rescue Committee placed a family of six Syrians in Texas more than a week ago, reuniting them with relatives, despite the objections of state officials. They were among 21 Syrians resettled in Texas during the week by different agencies.
“It’s less about challenging the state than continuing our work,” said Donna Duvin, executive director of IRC’s Dallas field office. Syrian families are victims of violence and persecution, she said, adding: “We’re very confident that we’re operating within the law.”
The Obama administration plans to bring in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the current fiscal year, part of an overall rise to 85,000 refugees from around the world, up from 70,000 the prior fiscal year. Proponents have said refugee screening, which can take years, is the most intensive vetting process for any travelers to the U.S.
Those reviews may include several hours of interviews with the U.N. refugee aid agency, which also collects personal documents and could take months to complete its security review. The U.N. agency also scans applicants’ irises. From there, the U.S. reviews include interviews and screening by multiple intelligence and security agencies. Syrians go through an added security layer with classified details, according to the State Department.
The State Department pays the resettlement agencies $2,025 per refugee to cover the cost of helping them for their initial 30 to 90 days in the U.S. After that, the Department of Health and Human Services offers support, though the amount differs from state to state.
A State Department representative said the agency gives state refugee coordinators detailed reports each month on recent and coming arrivals. Each quarter, the State Department provides lists of refugees who could be sent to given states because of family or personal contacts there. But personal details regarding individual refugees are considered confidential.
Although nonprofits have helped refugees for decades, the 1980 Refugee Act solidified the resettlement process, said Courtland Robinson, deputy director at the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Back then, the U.S. had an influx of refugees from Communist regimes in Southeast Asia.
Officials with resettlement groups said they were surprised by the states’ positions because they are accustomed to bipartisan support for their work. “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Mark Hetfield, the chief executive at HIAS Inc. Previously known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the New York-based resettlement agency traces its roots to 134 years ago, when it helped Jews escape pogroms in Russia and what is now Eastern Europe. Today, it helps refugees from around the world, including Syria.
Catholic Charities in Indianapolis challenged Indiana by settling a Syrian refugee family there this month. The family, with two small children, had lived in a refugee camp in Jordan, according to Greg Otolski, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
A spokesman for Gov. Mike Pence said in a recent statement that Indiana would “continue to suspend its participation in the resettlement of Syrian refugees until the federal government takes action to address the concerns raised about this program.”
Last month, Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indiana, a 31-year-old nonprofit, redirected an Indiana-bound Syrian family to Connecticut because of Indiana’s objections to bringing Syrian refugees into state. But going forward, the group intends to settle Syrians in Indianapolis despite state objections, according to Cole Varga, interim executive director of the group, which now has several more Syrian families lined up for resettlement, he said.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission sought a temporary restraining order in federal court to block refugees. But a judge denied the latest request, ruling that concerns about terrorist infiltration are too speculative.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is supporting federal legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) that would give governors the ability to reject refugees over security concerns.
Despite the governors’ pushback, resettlement agencies say communities remain welcoming, with churches stepping up to help. “That is what enabled us to do what we did with so much confidence,” said Mr. Sieweke, from World Relief’s Atlanta office.